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Faculty who don’t like teaching and hate working with students

Peter Woit links to Steve Hsu linking to a 1977 interview by Katherine Sopka of physics professor Sidney Coleman.

I don’t know anything about Coleman’s research but the interview caught my eye because one of my roommates in grad school was one of Coleman’s advisees.

Anyway, here’s the key bit from the interview:

Sopka: But you do enjoy working with students or do you?

Coleman: No. I hate it. You do it as part of the job. Well, that’s of course false…or maybe more true than false when I say I hate it. Occasionally there’s a student who is a joy to work with. But I certainly would be just as happy if I had no graduate students…

Sopka: I guess your remark means then that you would like to avoid teaching undergraduate courses or even required graduate courses…

Coleman: Or even special topics courses. Teaching is unpleasant work. No question about it. It has its rewards. One feels happy about having a job well done. Washing the dishes, waxing the floors (things I also do on a regular basis since I’m a bachelor) have their rewards. I am pleased when I have done a good job waxing the floor and I’ve taken an enormous pile of dirty dishes and reduced them to sparkling clean ones. On the other hand, if I didn’t have to, I would never engage in waxing the floors, although I’m good at it. I’m also good at teaching; I’m considered very good at teaching, both by myself and others. And I’m also terrifically good at washing dishes, in fact. On the other hand, I certainly would never make a bunch of dirty dishes just for the joy of washing them and I would not teach a course just for the joy of teaching a course . . .

I’m the opposite of Coleman: I enjoy teaching and advising but I’m not always very good at it. Also, I can’t imagine what Coleman meant when he described himself as being “terrifically good at washing dishes.” I can picture someone being bad at washing dishes, or being competent at it, but being “terrifically good”? What could that possibly mean in a non-restaurant, non-cafeteria setting?

18 Comments

  1. Sounds like an awful lot of boasting to me. Any evidence that this guy actually is a good teacher? It would seem rather unusual to have someone that dislikes it so much, but is very good, as it takes preparation, enthusiasm, flexibility, etc. Also, doing the dishes is pretty easy…

  2. Wesley says:

    What amuses me is that he was Gell-man’s student, and seemingly took full advantage of the system when *he* was a student, but now that he’s not, he states things like:

    In general, working with a graduate student is like teaching a course. It’s tedious, unpleasant work. A pain in the neck. You do it because you’re paid to do it. If I weren’t paid to do it I certainly would never do it.

    Basically, as said above, the interview comes across as boasting and selfish more than anything else. Being a professor, even at Harvard, is about more than just your research — if he hated all the other aspects of his job so much, why didn’t he leave and go become a research scientist somewhere?

  3. Simonini says:

    Dish-washing abilities vary greatly. At the low end, one can load a dishwasher. At the high-end, one can remove all the crud from a cast-iron pan without stripping the seasoning or quickly get all the lemon zest out of a cheese-grater.

  4. He was not a bad teacher. He was prepared, very clear and organized, had a great handle on managing the time allotted for each lecture. I did not enjoy his overwhelming arrogance (as I mentioned in a comment on Woit’s blog, he actually responded to a student once when I was in class, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”), but he did his job.

  5. I think this is dangerous ground where we’d need actual evidence. The truth is, I’m pretty good at doing things I’m not crazy about but like washing dishes, they aren’t real analogues for working with students. Also, a lot of the people who swan around claiming to love students and to love teaching aren’t necessarily getting the best evaluations from either peers or students–there’s the possibility that they derive too much of their identity from this process and it ceases being about students and more about ego. On my faculty, the best teacher, hands down, is a guy with a Phd in education who spent five years as a first grade teacher–suggesting to me that practice merged with passion means a lot more than either on its own. I personally have a love-hate relationship with students: I like helping people out, I like engaging about my topic with people, but my personality is one where social interaction is cripplingly hard and takes a lot of energy out of me.

  6. John says:

    I have a friend who is in fact “terifically good” at washing dishes. When she worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant she got immense praise from her coworkers for doing a good job fast. I am not: when I washed dishes in her kitchen one time it pained her so much to see me do it so slowly that she just took over.

    I presume this is what he means, although he also sounds kind of like a jerk.

  7. Kelly says:

    “Washing the dishes, waxing the floors (things I also do on a regular basis since I’m a bachelor)…” Because of course if he were married, the woman would do all that stuff.

    I don’t think many faculty members would voluntarily teach classes if someone told them they had the option of never doing it again, even if they generally find it rewarding. But I think most working people feel the same way. Rewarding jobs can’t compete with getting to do whatever you want all the time, especially when the rewarding parts come with a lot of unpleasant parts too (grading, grade complaints).

    I think if all teaching and advising were optional, I would still want to advise graduate students and undergraduate honors students. And I would be up for teaching a small seminar once per year… maybe every other year…

    • “I don’t think many faculty members would voluntarily teach classes if someone told them they had the option of never doing it again”

      I’m retired, have enough to last my wife and myself for the rest of our lives, yet after I retired I volunteered to teach statistics as an adjunct professor, for not much money. I do this because I love teaching as much as I love the research that I still do (in retirement). So I guess I am not one of the “many.”

  8. gaddeswarupgaddeswarup@yahoo.com.au says:

    My impression is that universities do not have teaching or orintation courses for teachers whereas school teachers aretrained. Some US university teachers acquire the kills as teaching assistants but there are no systematic procedures (this is my impression from 70s and 80s and may have changed now). There were some initiatives in math. teaching from MIT mentioned in “Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians” by Joel Segel which probably spread to some other universities. In one of the interviews Michael Artin said
    “But the first time I tried to lecture one of the freshman calculus classes, it didn’t work very well. I was too formal, probably. You’re in front of 250 people or so. It’s a short of show game, and I had a hard time. The last time I did it, it was fine, but I’d learned a lot. Before trying it again, I attended Arthur Mattuck’s lectures for an entire semester, and I leaned a lot from him.
    Another thing that really helped me was being videotaped. The first time I was videotaped it wasn’t in the calculus, though I’ve been taped teaching those courses.”
    I get the impression that there were no systematic nation-wide efforts and it was left to the individuals and departments to muddle through.

    • I agree with this. Although I ended up a decent teacher (I think), some formal training would have been a great help, especially in my beginning years as an assistant professor.

  9. Lord says:

    I would guess fantastically good at washing dishes means you can do so while thinking about other things.

  10. Nick Cox says:

    The title distorts the issue, which is about disliking teaching, not students.

    • Andrew says:

      Nick:

      Consider this exchange:

      Sopka: But you do enjoy working with students or do you?

      Coleman: No. I hate it.

      OK, he didn’t say he dislikes students. He said he hates working with students. That doesn’t seem so different to me. I don’t think anyone was suggesting that he hated students as individual people; of course this is all about working with students in a professional context.

      • Nick Cox says:

        As no one was suggesting that, so also it follows that the title is still wrong.

        • Andrew says:

          Nick:

          OK, you’ve got a point. I’ve changed the title from “Faculty who don’t like students” to “Faculty who don’t like teaching and hate working with students.”

  11. mclaren says:

    Clearly a great dishwasher is someone who produces dishes which make food taste better when people eat of ’em by reason of the incalculable metaphysical wonderfulness of the person who washed ’em. Having thus exited into the realm of the surreal by way of woolly-headed superstition, we’re now well qualified to evaluate Sidney Coleman’s assertion that he’s “good at teaching.”

  12. Radu says:

    Very interesting interview – thank you Andrew for linking to it. I was impressed by the guy’s honesty. It’s hard for me to imagine that someone interviewed for say, Statistical Science would say things like that. It resonated with me his attitude that there is life outside work and location matters (see his evaluation of life in Princeton) a lot. Frankly, given the pressure to publish I wouldn’t be surprised if more young faculty were thinking along the same lines about teaching. Teaching can be very fulfilling if one is given time and space to prepare properly.